On the dangers of non-worship

July 21, 2022

(Before I start: this post will probably make only sense to Muslims. The terminology and the concepts will be more familiar to them. Apologies.)

Writing about the dangers of worship got me thinking. 

In Islam we know that intentions are very important. We try to guard our intentions so that we do our actions only out of worship, to please Allah. We try to guard ourselves against shirk and riya, i.e. doing things for show or to impress people, etc. I thought that I was doing not bad in that respect. (Even thinking that should have been a sign.)

BUT I just realized that there are things that I do, of which I sometimes explicitly think to myself that I do them not to please Allah – even though they are in alignment with the religion – but because they are the right thing to do, the moral thing to do. 

For instance, something simple like picking up trash from the street. I think to myself that it is something I do, because it is the right thing to do.

You might think, as I did, what’s wrong with that? The problem is that the intention is not tied to the worship of Allah. The intention is tied to me, my self-image. Thinking of myself as someone who picks up trash from the streets, who does the right thing not because to get some reward or escape some kind of punishment or to show off … patting my ego on the shoulder without even realizing, essentially praising myself on how good I am, how moral I am. 

And just like that ujb (pride) enters the heart, i.e. having a high opinion of oneself (regarding something, anything). The very very next step would be to think “I am better than people who do not pick up the trash, who don’t have that moral standard”. And just like that kibr (arrogance) enters the heart. And arrogance is downfall. (*)

Sometimes ujb and kibr are mixed up. But as in the above example, I don’t need anybody else to have ujb in my heart. But I need someone else to feel better than, to have kibr. Both are illnesses of the heart and have to be dealt with. Hamza Yusuf’s book Purification of the Heart contains a great summary of the diseases. It is published with an open license so you can find it online as a PDF file. 

I finally understand why our teaching is so keen on guarding intentions, to always tie them to Allah. It is yet another safety precaution to save us from ourselves. Unbelievable that it took me 40 years and writing a blog post about it to realize this. So that is why people are always raving about journaling 🙂 

(*) Whilst picking up trash from the street is objectively better than not picking up trash from the street, it does not follow that by doing that action a human is better/superior than the one who does not do the action. We are not supposed to think in terms of superiority.

… there is so much left to know and I’m on the road to find out.”

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